It shouldn’t surprise us that Thomas has written about thankfulness. There are very few topics that he did not cover. He devotes an entire question of the Summa to thankfulness. (It is part of his section on justice.) I’ll just mention a distinction—one that surprised me—that he makes in article 4 of the question on thankfulness.
The question of article 4 is whether a man is bound to repay a favor at once. At first this seemed to me like a silly question. But on reflection I can see Thomas’s point. According to Thomas, it might seem that one ought to repay a favor at once, but he quotes Seneca’s maxim that “He that hastens to repay, is animated with a sense, not of gratitude but of indebtedness.” There’s the fundamental distinction to observe: Do I react to a favor because I am thankful or simply because I am indebted.
Of course, says Thomas, we ought to be quick to repay the favor as regards the affection of our heart—that is to say, our attitude of gratefulness ought to be immediate. From Seneca again, Thomas quotes, “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.” The attitude of thankfulness is primary; it is what forms and maintains character most of all.
But with respect to making repayment with an actual gift, Thomas says that we ought to wait “until such a time as will be convenient to the benefactor.” Quoting Seneca a third time, Thomas writes that “he that wishes to repay too soon, is an unwilling debtor, and an unwilling debtor is ungrateful.”
What is of interest to me in this article is the fact that a certain behavior—repaying a favor quickly—might seem wholly proper when in fact it demonstrates a lack of virtue. Simply repaying the favor is not sufficient to be grateful. One must be careful to repay the favor at the right time, in the right manner. This is what “the rectitude of virtue demands.”
I can remember making the mistake Thomas describes: A neighbor gave us an unexpected gift, and I immediately invited him over for dinner. It was an awkward moment, and I felt that I should not have sullied the neighbor’s gift with my too-quick repayment. In that case, would that I had read Thomas before offering to repay so soon.
Thus, Thomas distinguishes between acting out of gratitude and acting out of indebtedness. One test to determine which of the two is animating our action is to assess how comfortable we are in deferring repayment of the favor to a time that is appropriate for the benefactor. If we are comfortable waiting to repay, that’s a sign we’re genuinely grateful. If we are hasty to repay, we should reflect on whether we are truly grateful.